Review

Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts

by Charlie LeDuff



This collection of powerful and mesmerizing stories from Pulitzer
Prize-winning New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff offers
up a paean to the real New York and the seamy, gritty underside
that is often hidden from view to the casual observer. "New York is
a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies," says LeDuff in
the book's introduction, and it is these nobodies that he plucks
from obscurity and brings to life in these nervy, punchy
vignettes.

Partially drawn from his former column in the New York
Times
, the pieces collected in WORK AND OTHER SINS provide
compelling and contemplative portraits of the laborers, dreamers,
hustlers and immigrants from the city's uncelebrated ranks of
working stiffs. There's the man who replaces light bulbs at the top
of the Empire State Building, the last licensed trapper within city
limits, the harbor policemen charged with the grisly task of
removing dead bodies from the river, the black Santa Claus at
Rockefeller Center, and the last civilian lighthouse keeper on
Coney Island.

In his deeply personal style, LeDuff lays bare the hopes, fears and
frustrations of these unsung heroes, offering us an intimate
chronicle of lives lived quietly in the shadows. The city around
them serves as no mere background player, but instead comes alive
as a living, breathing organism in its own right. The author
evocatively captures the sights and sounds of the urban landscape,
authentically rendering the smoky dive bars, dingy street corners
and cramped single room occupancy hotels where dreams are born and
extinguished, and the city's dramas are played out.

The abbreviated length of the pieces in the collection makes them
perfect for reading in short sittings, and LeDuff writes with a
keen sense of perceptivity and depth that belies their brevity. In
his spare, clipped prose devoid of any false sentiment, he gives us
an unvarnished account of real people living real lives, and the
result is profoundly moving and compassionate.

While many of the stories and characters seem to nostalgically hark
back to a vanishing era, there are also some painfully modern
snapshots of a post 9/11 New York, including stories about the
rescue efforts and debris removal at Ground Zero and a profile of
Squad One, the Brooklyn firehouse that suffered devastating losses
during the attack. But even in recording these dark times, LeDuff
succeeds in finding moments of beautiful humanity, often in the
simplest acts and statements of his subjects.

In addition to the sheer voyeuristic reading pleasure these essays
offer up, they also serve as astute works of social and cultural
anthropology, much in the vein of Studs Terkel and Luc Sante. While
at their core they are a celebration of the individual, taken
collectively the stories form a cohesive oral history of the myriad
voices residing on the fringe that deserve to be seen and
heard.

LeDuff's incomparable take on the city vividly brings to life the
culture of the streets and the poetry of the people, leaving us
with a newfound admiration and respect for the resiliency and
spirit of the common man.

Reviewed by Joni Rendon on January 24, 2011

Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts
by Charlie LeDuff

  • Publication Date: January 26, 2004
  • Genres: Current Affairs, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
  • ISBN-10: 1594200025
  • ISBN-13: 9781594200021